Josh Boyle was a Senior Research Support Assistant for the Centre for Design History’s Making Visible the Storeroom International Conference held on May 12 2023. In this blog post, they reflect on the presentations and some of the key ideas that the event raised for them.
As a new scholar and practitioner within the Museum Studies field, I felt a certain level of admiration and awe for the list of speakers lined up for Making Visible the Storeroom. Industry heavy weights like Dr Mirjam Brusius, Dr Alison Hess & Dr Gus Casely-Hayford all in a single space was a momentous day; to have the conference attended by 150 people from more than a dozen countries was the real icing on the cake.
The first piece that really stood out to me was ‘Museum Storage and Repatriation: Exploring opportunities’ by Dr Mirjam Brusius, where she discussed the western standards of collections care, and how these cannot always be translated directly across locations, as well as the different significances placed on objects by different cultures. This was underpinned by her own work within the field of science and colonialism. This basis in political and social science gave a weight to her words that some of the more abstract interpretations of decolonisation can sometimes fail to do. This was quickly followed by Alison Hess’ talk on locality, and the importance of “place making”. She stressed the importance of engaging with marginalised local communities, who often inhabit the same geographic locations as museum storage; the industrial estates, out of town storerooms and deep caves winding their way underground, often unknown to the communities up above ground.
This idea of the unseen was continued in Craig Jordan-Baker’s rather imaginative lyrical essay on the Dead Letter Office. In this, he stated the “pleasures of the unseen are more nuanced than black & white, dark & light.” Craig made the note that the unseen does not necessarily mean a lost item. More on Craig’s lyrical essay can be found on the blog post by my fellow colleague Cara Gathern
The overriding theme of all these talks are best summarised by Michael Takeo Magruder’s intervention, where he said that information has to be wanted to be known, otherwise it is unseen still. The important thing to remember, however, is that the failure and withholding of information is as much a part of history as publishing knowledge. Prof. Rebecca Brown was also quick to point out that by withdrawing information from society to put it into storage often decontextualises and fragments that information. Even digitising information and stored content requires physical spaces for server rooms and databanks.
The roundtable discussion between Suchi Chatterjee, Sue Breakell, Rebecca Brown, Dr Helen Mears and Michael Takeo Magruder allowed for those from a number of different disciplinary perspectives, from archivists and artists, to answer questions around the need for specialist knowledges and the dichotomy between open access and storage. For me this posed the question, at what point does open access storage simply become a cluttered mess of an exhibition? My mind turned to the work of the museum practitioner John E Simmons, on “Collection Care and Management” (2015), where he discusses the need for striking a balance between chaos and order, and the need to be able to rummage and play with a collection. Suchi spoke about the physical requirements for storage often not being good enough for people like herself, who uses a wheelchair, and often finds that the gaps between storeroom shelves are not accommodating enough; this meant she loses that tactility with looking through storage herself to find the unseen, as she relies on another person to retrieve the objects. All agreed that the need for nuance was still prevalent, especially when attempting to acknowledge the wrongs of the past. “A one size fits all approach to decolonisation will not work” one of the panel remarked.
The final external speaker was Dr Gus Casely-Hayford, who spoke about the exciting work happening at the V&A East, the new open storage facility at the site of the former London 2012 Olympic Park. He discussed how he has already spoken to 100 schools in four different London boroughs, those schools who have traditionally been overlooked by public services, and about taking collections out into the community. This circled right back round to what Dr Hess said earlier in the symposium about locality. He acknowledged the problematic histories and the cultural complexities in schools are the same as within the collections, and how these difficult conversations about race, class and colonialism could be discussed much more widely by opening the collection to the wider public. Gus stated how collaborative efforts and visitor-created knowledge would be at the centre of the vision for the V&A East.
Overall, the MVS Symposium has laid some fantastic groundwork and brought together an excellent network of scholars and practitioners. This fascinating conversation was carried over to another Centre for Design History event, Conversation Pieces: Dayanita Singh and Rebecca M. Brown.